|World leaders have been urging Sudanese leaders in the north and south to keep the January 9 timetable [AFP]
Officials from Sudan's north and south have said the they are committed to holding a timely, peaceful referendum on January 9 that will determine whether Africa's largest nation will split into two separate countries.
The reaffirmation comes days after Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, expressed concerns over preparation delays. Registration for the referendum began on Monday.
Ali Ahmed Karti, Sudan's foreign minister, and Pagan Amum, the secretary-general of the south's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), also told the UN Security Council that the north and the south would both abide by the referendum's results.
Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's former president and the EU envoy to Sudan, said Omar al-Bashir, Sudan's president, and Salva Kiir, his South Sudan counterpart, will meet next week to try to resolve differences over a separate referendum to decide whether the oil-rich Abyei region should belong to the south or north.
The January vote is the final phase of a 2005 peace agreement that ended two decades of war between the north and south.
The conflict is unrelated to the fighting in western Darfur where rebel groups took up arms against the government in February 2003.
Under the agreement, the south formed its own government, which has limited autonomy and in which the north has a small representation. South Sudan is nominally represented in the government of national unity, which is led by the Khartoum-based National Congress Party (NCP).
Despite many unresolved issues, world leaders have been urging the parties to keep to the January 9 timetable.
John Kerry, a US senator who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last month that Sudanese leaders had assured him during his three-day visit to the country that they were committed to holding the referendum on time.
"I received a letter written in clear words confirming that the government of Sudan is committed to conduct southern Sudan referendum on 9th of coming January, and committed to its outcome," Kerry said.
During Tuesday's meeting many speakers said they were encouraged that voter registration began on time. Polls show the overwhelming majority of southerners favor independence. Northerners will not vote.
"All signs point to the fact that the people of Southern Sudan are likely to vote for independence in January," Amum told the 15-member council.
"We call on the council and on all UN member states to respect the choice of the people of Southern Sudan, as shall be reflected in the outcome of the referendum."
Karti, for his part, pledged the Sudanese government would abide by the results of the referendum.
There are concerns that any problems with the referendum could plunge Sudan back into civil war.
Speaking at Tuesday's council session, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called a return to civil war an 'unacceptable alternative".
She said US relations with Sudan would be "dramatically improved", if the referendum is successfully conducted.
The US has said it may remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as next July if the government in Khartoum meets numerous benchmarks, including a trouble-free vote.